'They are acutely aware when a customer looks at their phone, they’re really comparing prices on ebay. Or when someone pretends to be shopping, the person is actually trying to sneak a picture of them. '
SUNGEI ROAD, THE END OF AN ERA
By Mindy Tan
A photo essay about the hearts and spirit of the vendors of Sungei Road Thieves Market, as it faces eviction in 2017 when the Jalan Besar MRT station opens at its doorsteps, the market is a little quirky spot for the last chapter of oddity in Singapore, a spark of spontaneity and mess, and some room for nostalgia. Yet, just as its size has involuntarily been greatly reduced over the years, there will be no traces left of its existence when it is finally erased.
Documenting the market is trying to capture a sense of time in this transitional space. Here today, gone tomorrow, the market is a facade of Singapore you will be able to see today, but such a sight is fragile... Sungei road has had a long history in the story of Singapore dating back to pre-World War 2 days. With the new MRT station opening, the landscape of the market will be dramatically changed even if it remains in operation.
This photo series captures the spirit of the place - market based on people who have these spaces their sole livelihood. Particularly in such a country with little room for nostalgia, Sungei Road has its own flavour, often a rough edge to it. The things on sale aren’t always pretty, but more practical. Once in a while if you’re lucky, you’d find a rare gem. Not all the hawkers here are friendly. They have had bad encounters with people posting their images on the internet against their will. Some, they say, have given bad reviews about the place and they would rather not be featured. The golden rule at this place is to ask before taking a picture. Some decline to be photographed, but you know this is because they are shy and can be persuaded. Some decline for real reasons, for example they do not want their friends and family to discover they are making a living peddling junk at the market, I think these sorts of privacy have to be respected. I would ask them before shooting. Sometimes it’s simple eye-to-eye contact, if they know your intentions, they’ll simply nod and let you continue.
When I set on this project, my goal was for a straight-forward documentation. Then, I struggled a little with capturing the spirit of the place. When I encountered acts of love, such as an old lady vendor who wanted to give toys away for free to a child, I decided the theme should be about love and humanity.
But it’s so hard to capture soft moments because of the harsh environment there. I try fit things into the frame that would help portray the hawkers’ real hearts. I speak to almost every one of them. If you take their picture, the common running joke is not to put their pictures online because they owe the loanshark money and he/she would then know where to find them. The sellers are generally friendly but to get to them you have to speak their lingo and go along with their brand of humour.
They are acutely aware when a customer looks at their phone, they’re really comparing prices on ebay. Or when someone pretends to be shopping, the person is actually trying to sneak a picture of them. Sellers tell me they have seen all sorts of tricks before, they just pretend not to know.
Among the personalities, there’s an energetic Teochew lady who is 99 this year, almost a centenarian, she quips. She’s at the market everyday. There’s also a retired MRT tunnel engineer (pretty ironic), who might sell bicycles sometimes. He cycles a return journey from his home in the east everyday to the market, as form of exercise, and sells things as form of mingling with friends. He tells me his 3 children are graduates, one is a pilot, another has a PHD, and he used to earn up to $6000 a month before his retirement. One man was a machine operator until his finger was accidentally chopped off during the 70s, he lost his job and began hawking at the market.
There are also various mother and son, father and son pairs who set up stalls alongside each other at the market. If you frequent the place often enough, you will notice some of the shoppers come on a daily basis, a lot of them are extremely eloquent in Mandarin. Some are authors and artists. Sungei Road perhaps, is a place for romantics.
I don’t have a favourite image. As the photographer, my viewpoint is sometimes biased. I often judge an image according to what it takes to get that image, and the experience I got from it. For example, I had asked the seller for a photograph but he insisted it was only fair if he took one of me too.